The assignment for this, my fifth Toastmasters speech and with the project name “Your Body Speaks” was to express myself physically as I gave the speech, so I walked when I described walking, bowed when I described myself bowing, etc.
My uniform is a simple pair of trousers, the legs of which reach barely below my knees; a heavy cotton jacket; and a simple white belt.
As I change into my uniform, I can start feeling the cares of my day — even the stress of the drive to the dojo — fade away. Like traffic sounds fading as I go deeper into a forest, I may not notice it right away, but the hurry and bustle is less, then less again. I’m often the first person to arrive and I have the changing room to myself.
Once I’m dressed, I gather the bag of wooden weapons and leave the changing room, then walk down the flagstone path to the dojo itself. This is a simple wooden building on the edge of the woods, with a high roof, windows all the way around, and a porch across the front. The flagstones of the path are irregularly spaced, requiring me to slow down even more as I approach the porch.
I step onto the porch and leave my sandals by the bench. I slide the door open and bow. I enter the dojo and place the weapons in their proper corner, then get the broom and clean the dojo. As I do each task carefully and in its proper order, the external stillness starts settling deeper and deeper into my mind, and my body further slows. I’ve gradually learned that taking time to do something carefully and well holds value in and of itself.
Sweeping done, I enter the dojo again, bowing more deeply as I do so. Bowing slows me down, makes me pay attention. Bowing breaks the rush that I go through most of my life in. Bowing reminds me of why I’m here. It shows my respect for my teacher, and the teachers who went before him, and shows my respect for this space, for my fellow students, and even for myself.
I begin my warm-up, and while I’m stretching and rolling and swinging my arms, other students begin to arrive, each quietly bowing in and greeting me. Finally, our teacher shows up and we pause in our warm-ups to welcome him.
Soon the class begins, and we always start by bowing again, very formally this time, once to the front of the dojo as a symbol of respect to the teachers who have created, preserved, and strengthened this art, and once to our teacher; he bows to us as well; the respect goes both ways.
Then the class is in full swing, and we are practicing with sticks or wooden swords; throwing each other across the room (and being thrown!); learning new skills or practicing familiar motions.
On the inside I’m feeling a swirl of emotions. I’m gleeful when I execute a front roll correctly and at high speed; I’m frustrated at not being able to do a pin or a kata correctly which I thought I’d perfected. I’m embarrassed when I forget something my teacher just taught me a few days ago.
In the brief interludes of rest I sometimes think about the fact that I’ve spent so much of my life avoiding anything that might embarrass me, anything that I wouldn’t be able to excel at doing, and I wonder how many good things I’ve missed. At the dojo there’s certainly no danger of my excelling! I’m no natural athlete, and even those who are athletes may have to start studying when they’re in their teens to be considered experts… but that matters less here than anywhere else I’ve been. Experts don’t spend any time strutting around on the mat; they spend their time teaching and learning and practicing. The teachers and my fellow students are incredibly helpful to me, because we can’t have fun on the mat unless everyone is as capable as possible. It’s an art with no competition and no conflict.
Every time I make a mistake, forget a move, or mix up my Japanese vocabulary, I start to sink into my usual self-pity and self-accusation, but none of that comes from my teacher or my fellow students, and I’ve gradually learned the difference between humility and humiliation, between being humble and being humbled. My pride, which has stopped me so many times, in fear of being hurt… I’m finally learning how to set it aside and not be ruled by it. To learn, with no expectation of perfection, an art that seems to get bigger the further into it I go.
I’m starting to discover that there’s something to learn that’s not only in my head, things to learn that you can’t cram for, that take years to discover, and that that discovery is both inside and outside. It’s how to be physically present so that I can roll out of a throw without being hurt, and how to be with other students with respect and attention. There’s something in the process that is changing me in subtle ways. I can tell that a change is happening, but I can’t tell where I’m going yet.
Finally, the class ends, and once again we bow to the front of the dojo, then to our teacher, and last to each other, quietly gather our wooden weapons and bow a last time as we leave the mat.